published Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

District confusion clouds Hamilton County Commission election

A would-be Democratic candidate for the Hamilton County Commission is waiting on the sidelines until she gets an answer about what the commission's district boundaries will be for the March primary, party officials say.

She doesn't know if she'll still be in District 1 or in a newly drawn District 3 in time to qualify for next year's special election.

Hamilton County Democratic Party President Paul Smith said the candidate lives in an area of about 300 residents that commissioners voted to move from District 1 to District 3 as part of this year's plan to redraw political boundaries.

The candidate "couldn't qualify right now," Smith said, and the issue is pressing, in part, because it occurs in "the only district where we have an appointed commissioner who has to stand for election."

A special election will be held next year to fill the remainder of former District 3 Commissioner Jim Coppinger's term. Coppinger was appointed to fill former Mayor Claude Ramsey's role after Gov. Bill Haslam tapped Ramsey to be deputy governor in January.

Every 10 years, after each U.S. census, the state requires the county to draw new lines based on population shifts and minority concentration. Commissioners passed the plan last month and it's due to the state by Jan. 1.

The qualifying deadline for March primary candidates is Dec. 8 at noon.

County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said Monday he plans to bring a resolution that would clear up the uncertainty and run both elections based on the new lines.

"We will probably do that in the next few weeks," Henry said. "We don't have any real timeline to do that."

Henry said he's had discussions with County Attorney Rheubin Taylor about adopting a measure that would have the District 3 lines changed by the March primary.

So has Smith, who said he thinks the uncertainty about where the boundaries will be in March is unfair to both Democrats and Republicans.

"They don't know where their voters are," Smith said.

When an election falls within a redistricting year, the county has a choice whether to run the primary and general elections on the old district lines or new ones, said Beth Henry-Robertson, the state's assistant coordinator of elections.

"Whatever lines they use must be the same lines that they use for the August [general] election," she said. "If they use the old lines in March, they have to use the old lines in August."

A choice to use the new lines in March would mean that any nonpartisan county school board races held in August would also be held using those new lines.

Under the newly drawn lines, about 300 potential voters will move from District 1, currently held by Fred Skillern, to District 3, held by interim Commissioner Mitch McClure.

In a typical redistricting process, the Tennessee General Assembly, which will reconvene in January, would incorporate the county's map into its statewide map of redistricted lines and send it back to the local election commission to decide where voting precincts should be placed.

  • photo
    Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, elections administrator for Hamilton County
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

New voter registration cards then would be sent to affected voters, according to Charlotte Mullis-Morgan, Hamilton County's elections administrator. Those lines typically would be in place by August.

"The only fair thing to do is to change those lines" in March, she said.

In addition to confusion about what lines will apply, the election commission must draw a new voting precinct map. Doing that by March could be difficult, Henry-Robertson said.

The county election commission cannot have two state Senate districts or two County Commission districts voting in the same precinct, Henry-Robertson said.

"Even if the General Assembly is able to adopt their lines by the end of January, early February, the election commission will be preparing for early voting," she said.

Smith and a delegation from the local Democratic Party plan to seek clarification from the county's Election Commission at 8 a.m. today.

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about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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